When you think of joint swelling, you may picture a senior pet with arthritis hobbling down a set of stairs, or carefully hopping into a car. However, joint swelling in dogs can be an issue for all age pets, and has many causes. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of swollen joints in dogs, and how to treat and prevent it.
What Exactly Are Joints?
A joint is a part of the body where two bones connect via a series of tissues that cushion, lubricate, and help the bones move without rubbing against each other. A joint is made up of several sections, including articular cartilage covering the ends of the bones, a joint capsule and synovial membrane cushioning it, and synovial fluid filling the joint “cushion”. Other tissues, such as ligaments and muscles that connect to the bones for movement surround the joint.
In a normal joint, these tissues all work together for healthy movement. In a joint that is unhealthy, there may be changes due to inflammation. Additional causes include puncture or bursting of the fluid due to infection, or breakdown of the cartilage or bone tissue due to aging or genetic disease. Injuries, such as tearing of a ligament, can also create issues.
Swollen Joints in Dogs – General Signs to Watch Out For
While joint swelling can happen for a number of reasons, there are some general symptoms that can indicate there is something wrong in all cases. A dog with joint swelling may limp or refuse to put weight on the affected limb. They may also have visible redness, swelling, or heat surrounding the affected joint. Dogs that are in pain due to joint swelling may refuse to eat or be reluctant to move. They may have other changes in activity or behavior levels. A vet visit to find the cause is best If you notice your dog is acting differently or appears to be in pain or injured.
Joint Swelling in Dogs — Causes
Here are some of the most common causes of joint swelling in dogs, and how they can be treated:
Injury to Ligaments
An injury is the most common cause of joint swelling in dogs of all ages. Falling, twisting, over-exercising, and general movement can all cause the joint to twist or pivot incorrectly. This can lead to tearing of the surrounding ligaments and tissues that connect the bones on either side of the joint. Symptoms of an injury can include limping on the affected limb, yelping in pain, or swelling of the joint. Your dog may also be reluctant to move around or try to hide or protect the limb from being touched.
Beyond a basic exam, X-rays and ultrasound are the most common diagnostics used for checking a ligament injury. Depending on the severity, treatment can include a range of conservative to surgical options. Conservative treatment includes a round of pain and anti-inflammatory medications to help reduce swelling. Strict kennel-rest for one to two weeks to allow the injury to heal is also recommended. If the tear is large or doesn’t resolve with rest, surgical repair of the ligament with an orthopedic surgeon, along with a longer course of medications and a 6-8 week period of rest and rehabilitation may be needed.
Prevention can be hard, as dogs that are playing can accidentally leap or twist wrong and cause a tear. Make sure to limit exercise and overly-excited play on uneven surfaces. Gradually building up joint strength over time can help reduce the chances of injury.
Injury to Bones
Along with ligament injuries around the joint, the bones and joint capsule can also be injured. Breaks to the end of the bone are less common, however, trauma to the bone can cause pieces to be broken off that puncture the joint capsule or cause inflammatory swelling. Breaks can also happen in narrowed parts of the bone, such as the femoral head and neck, due to its shape. Like a ligament injury, your dog may limp or refuse to use the limb, have pain when touched, or have severe swelling around the affected joint. Diagnosis is similar, with X-ray and ultrasound being the easiest way to look for bone fractures or shards invading the joint capsule.
Treatment can again range from the conservative to more serious fixes such as surgery. Rest and stabilization of the joint through casts can help the bone to heal in the proper shape. Pain meds and anti-inflammatory medications can also help reduce swelling as the injury heals. If there are shards in the bone capsule, or the capsule becomes infected as a result of puncture, surgical repair and additional medications such as antibiotics may be needed. Prevention is similar to other body injuries. Limit activity on rough surfaces and gradually build up joint and muscle strength to help keep the bones and joints from getting injured.
Genetic Disorders (Dysplasia, Luxation)
Some breeds, such as toy breeds, retrievers, and shepherds, are prone to genetic issues that can cause joint swelling. These issues include hip and elbow dysplasia in larger breeds, and patella (knee) luxation in smaller breeds. Dysplasia occurs when the joint of two bones don’t properly form or connect, leading to a change in structure. Luxation happens when a joint isn’t stabilized, causing the joint to “pop” out of place. Symptoms of both can include joint swelling and limping. Other symptoms can include visible distortion in the affected joint, pain upon touch, and changes in ability to move around.
Diagnosis involves X-raying the affected joint to look for changes in joint and bone structure that indicate an issue. The X-rays can be sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) to check for dysplasia. The OFA both grades the severity of dysplasias and also certifies joints for dogs in breeding programs.
Treatment can be difficult and depends on the severity. For dysplasias, early testing and treatment with supplements can help. Glucosamine, chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and more can help prevent early degrading of the joints and limit pain and inflammation. For luxation, supplementation and conservative care such as reduced exercise may help. In more extreme cases, surgical stabilization of the joint can prevent further damage. Since both conditions are genetic, early testing is key. Removing affected dogs from breeding can help reduce these problems in future litters.
Osteoarthritis and Aging
Another extremely common cause of joint swelling in dogs, osteoarthritis occurs when joint inflammation leads to the breakdown of the joint tissue. This is also sometimes referred to as degenerative joint disease (DJD). While this is commonly a disease of older, senior pets, it can occur in any breed at any age. Owners might see gradual changes, such as a reduction in exercise or a reluctance to get up on the couch or into the car. In severe cases, the joints may become hot or inflamed, or be visibly swollen. Pain and stiffness after sitting or laying for a long time, and trembling, can be another indicator of arthritis.
Diagnosis usually involves ruling out other issues through X-rays, physical exams, and patient history. There are a wide variety of treatment options available for osteoarthritis in dogs. Over the counter supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, and “joint-healthy” treats that contain collagen and natural joint-boosting ingredients can help. Other supplements (often referred to as nutraceuticals) are growing in popularity. This includes green-lipped mussel, MSM, and omega-3 fish oils.
For dogs with more severe arthritis, medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like carprofen and galliprant can help reduce pain and inflammation. Prescription pain medications such as tramadol and gabapentin can also help. However, these should be monitored long-term as they can cause liver damage over a prolonged period.
Prevention is harder, as osteoarthritis can happen naturally as a dog ages. Keeping your dog in shape, on a healthy balanced diet, and providing supplementation can help reduce severity. For large and giant breed dogs, feeding a diet that slows down growth in puppyhood may also help reduce arthritis later in life.
While it doesn’t affect the joints directly, paneositis is a condition that causes inflammation and changes in the long bones of the limbs. It typically occurs in growing large and giant breed dogs. In addition to joint swelling around affected bones, dogs may become painful seemingly at random, with the affected limb changing. They may limp on the front one day, and then a back leg the next. They may also exhibit signs such as reluctance to move around or participate in regular activities.
Panosteitis is determined by physical exam and health history. Other tests can rule out more serious issues such as breaks or tears to the bones and joints. There may also be changes to the ends of long bones (in the legs) visible on X-ray. Since panosteitis is self-limiting and usually resolves once a dog is done growing, treatment involves keeping them comfortable. This can include pain medications such as NSAIDs to reduce pain and swelling. Changing to a large or giant-breed dog food can also help prevent or limit symptoms in growing dogs by helping to limit rapid growth.
Infections of the joint and joint capsule can also cause swelling in dogs. Also called septic arthritis, joint infections occur when bacteria in the body invades the joint due to trauma or injury. Some tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease, can also cause joint infections. In addition to joint swelling seen from other causes, and symptoms such as a limp or pain at the joint, an infection can also cause fever and loss of appetite.
Joint infections are diagnosed with physical examination and X-rays, along with blood work. A sample of the joint fluid can also be used to determine if infection is present. Treatment includes antibiotics for the infection, treating any underlying illnesses causing the infection, and in more severe cases, flushing of the joint capsule or surgical removal of debris causing infection in the case of injury. Prevention is limited, but limiting the chances for injury and regularly treating for ticks and other bacteria-carrying pests can help prevent transmission.
Joint/Femoral Head Necrosis (Non-infection)
Aseptic joint necrosis, or breakdown of the joint not caused by infections, usually occurs in small breed dogs. Lack of blood flow to the bones, specifically the head of the femur (what connects to the hip), leads to the breakdown of the bone due to a lack of nutrients. While it can occur in any small breed dog, some breeds, such as terriers, may be more prone. Dogs with joint necrosis may limp on one or both legs, have pain or swelling in the hips, or be reluctant to get up and move.
Diagnosis involves X-rays to check the affected joints for signs of damage. Treatment is often surgical removal of the damaged bone, hip replacement, and physical therapy to help increase mobility. It’s not known if the disease is hereditary or caused by something in particular. Consequently, it can be hard to prevent.
Auto-immune diseases can attack any part of the body, including joints. These diseases occur when the body begins to attack itself, causing an inflammatory response. When it affects the joints, it can cause swelling, pain, and other symptoms similar to other joint diseases. Greyhounds can be prone to a joint-specific auto-immune disease that targets bone and cartilage. Broader auto-immune diseases such as lupus can attack whole body systems, including the joints.
In addition to pain and swelling, a fever, loss of appetite, and general signs of illness can indicate an immune response. They will usually come and go, rather than be persistent like with an infection. X-rays, bloodwork, joint tissue biopsy, and physical examination are key diagnostics. They can be used to rule out other causes of joint swelling, such as infection or arthritis, and determine if an auto-immune disease is the cause.
Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause. In the case of a broad auto-immune disease, steroids and anti-inflammatory medications can keep the immune response under control. However, it isn’t always 100% effective. Prevention is also difficult with auto-immune diseases since they can come on suddenly and aren’t caused by a specific external source.
Cancers and Tumors
A rarer cause of joint swelling in dogs is a type of cancer called synovial cell sarcoma. These affect the joints, and can cause symptoms such as excessive swelling, pain, and restricted movement. X-rays can check for signs of a growth around the affected joint. These growths can be confirmed with a biopsy of the surrounding tissue.
Since cancers of the joint are rare, and sometimes become metastatic (traveling to other parts of the body), it is a good idea to be referred to a veterinary oncologist if the tumor is affecting other body parts. If it is still centralized in just a single joint, amputation is the recommended treatment option.
Excessive exercise isn’t a medical problem like the others listed above, but it can lead to joint swelling in dogs. Just like humans, if a dog isn’t gradually introduced to more and more exercise, they can experience injury to the bones and joints, including swelling and inflammation. Dogs that have had too much exercise may be stiff and reluctant to get up. Dogs may also yelp in pain if affected limbs are touched, or have visible swelling and stiffness of the joints.
In minor cases, kennel rest, including leashed-only walks outside to go potty, along with an NSAID such as carprofen can help reduce pain until your dog recovers. In more severe cases, your vet may want to check for injuries sustained during exercise such as tears to the joint or ligaments. Exercise-related joint swelling can be prevented by gradually building up activity levels with your dog. Participating in exercise that is less taxing on the joints such as swimming or underwater treadmill therapy may also help.
While rare, nutritional deficiencies can lead to joint swelling in dogs. The opposite, too much nutrition, leading to obesity, can also cause joint swelling by adding extra weight and stress to the joints. In deficiencies, you may see other signs in addition to joint problems, such as a lack of energy, weight loss, or overall poor health. For obesity, dogs may have a harder time getting around. Your vet can perform bloodwork to check for any nutritional issues, and can also perform a body condition score in addition to taking your dog’s weight to see if they need to gain or lose weight.
Treating any nutritional deficiencies with supplementation or switching to a balanced commercial diet will usually correct any problems. For dogs with obesity, a prescription weight-loss diet high in fiber in addition to an exercise routine can help decrease intake while gradually strengthening the joints. Veterinary physical therapy is growing in popularity, and underwater treadmills and other low-stress activities are a great way to help a dog lose weight while protecting the joints from further damage.
Joint swelling in dogs can be a concerning symptom. However, with preventive care and early treatment, you can help keep your dog active, healthy, and comfortable from puppyhood to their golden years.